• Posted on December 15, 2014
Farmer & the Clown farmstead

The Farmer and the Clown

I was lucky enough to see some illustrations for this book earlier in the year and immediately thought The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee will be the book of 2014. There have been many beautiful children’s picture books published this year, with subject matter and illustration styles so diverse, it seems ridiculous to pick a favourite. And yet, there it is, in exquisite company yes…but at the top. The Farmer and the Clown is uncluttered storytelling; no words, but huge, breathtaking heart. It is a book told entirely in pictures – a visual narrative that is simply unforgettable.

The Farmer & the Clown meets farmer

The story opens on a prairie landscape of endless, empty horizon. A white-bearded farmer in a black hat is hoeing his field, a little stooped, crows circling in the sepia sky, when a circus train rolls by in the distance. Something falls off the caboose, and as the farmer approaches the figure, he sees a tiny clown in a pointed hat. He takes the clown in hand, and off they go to his farmhouse. In full makeup, the little clown is always smiling, but once the makeup is removed, so is the smile, and the face that emerges is both young, and frightened. The clown-child is confused and sad, but the farmer does his goofy best to cheer him up. Both are alien to one another, but the strangeness soon fades as the farmer teaches the child about life on the farm. They work and play alongside each other, milking the cow, juggling eggs, and enjoying a picnic under a tree. It’s hard to say who needs who the most. The farmer is alone, and possibly lonely, and the kid is far from home and family. There is no back story – we do not know what preceeded their current states, but in the here and now, they are wondrously present for one another. The farmer’s kindness toward the little clown is returned in amiable companionship and a dose of fun that was almost certainly missing from his life. Eventually, when the circus train returns, one story ends, but another begins. At the conclusion of The Farmer and the Clown, if there is any question that their lives have been uplifted, especially the farmer’s, it is answered with the final exchange of hats. Everything is different.

Farmer & the Clown no makeup

The Farmer and the Clown goodnight

The Farmer & the Clown the train

Marla Frazee is a relatively recent addition to my circus tent of brilliant illustrators. I first became acquainted with her work in Boot & Shoe (Beach Lane, 2013), which was one of my favourite books from last year, as well as God Got a Dog (Cynthia Rylant, Beach Lane, 2013). In those books, produced in her signature prismacolour, pencil and gouache, Frazee brings an unusual energy to her illustrations, as if there is an unseen breeze wafting through the imagery. In The Farmer and the Clown, Frazee’s illustrations are stilled, quieter. The endearing characterizations are there, and the gentle humour, but the overall atmosphere is more reflective, allowing the graceful story to unfold in warm, prairie-wide vignettes. Colour is flat and minimal, perhaps a reflection of the farmer’s lackluster life, until a little clown in yellow ruffles and a red cap shows up. The Farmer and the Clown is a profoundly moving, deeply charming, and gorgeously illustrated book about kindness, acceptance, and how unexpected moments and unlikely friendships can transform lives.

Farmer & the Clown goodbye

And there it is, my favourite book of 2014.

farmer-and-clown-cover

Marla Frazee is a southern California-based author and illustrator. She was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. She is the author-illustrator of Roller Coaster, Walk On!, Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, The Boss Baby, Boot & Shoe, as well as the illustrator of many other books including Mrs Biddlebox, The Seven Silly Eaters, Stars, and God Got a Dog. Marla teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, has three grown sons, works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree, and has a dog named Toaster.

THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN by Marla Frazee. Published by Beach Lane Books, 2014

My short reviews of BOOT & SHOE and GOD GOT A DOG (click on the links and scroll down)

  • Posted on December 10, 2014
Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

Any Questions?

Yes. I have one. How do you do it? When I opened Marie-Louise Gay’s newly published Any Questions? for the first time, it was like being handed a bouquet of freshly plucked wildflowers. As I progressed through the book, the room filled with light. I felt uplifted. This is what happens, what always happens, when I read her books. Any Questions? is her most adventurous picture book to date, and certainly her most beautiful. Gay centres the story around her own real-life experience as an author – in particular the many hundreds of questions she is asked (by children) about her books and especially, her creative process:

“How did you learn to draw?”

Where does a story start?

Do you put a cat in every book?

Any Questions purple beast

The inquiring minds are represented by Gay’s typical menagerie of whimsically drawn children (no one is better at this), cats, rabbits, and  ever-present snails; this time, however, they are not so much characters in the story as the inspiration. Their questions balloon out from the page in one continuous (and utterly charming) conversation, each illustration richly infused with Gay’s luminous watercolour palette. As questions are answered (on the page and in an appendix), Gay invites further participation from her acolytes as she creates a brand new picture book, The Shy Young Giant, itself a thing of sweet wonder in a wonder-filled story. Visually and narratively, there is a lot of bang for your buck in Any Questions. At it’s core, however, is a profound message about valuing curiosity and imagination.

Any Questions Shy Giant spread

There is a mini-trend this year in children’s books in which the writer directly engages with the characters, and sometimes even the reader, thus breaking the picture book equivalent of the fourth wall. Specifically, The Battle Bunny Book (Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett) and A Perfectly Messed-Up Story (Patrick McDonnell) bear the marks of having been ‘interfered with’ in the form of scribbles and jam stains courtesy of the ‘reader’. Like these two publications, Marie-Louise Gay plays with the typical format of a picture book, presenting it as an interactive enterprise (albeit with fictional characters), and in doing so, giving us a glimpse into her own creative process. As one might imagine, it’s starts with a blank page, and a question. A lot of questions.

Any Questions yellow

And yet, with the publication of each new book, Gay is becoming more and more playful with her answers. There is a fluidity to her illustrations that is almost dream-like, as if each scene, characters and all, comes tumbling straight from her imagination to the awaiting page – issues resolved, compositions exquisitely realized. As with Gay’s recent books, in Any Questions?, some illustrations are watercolour only, while others take a more multi-media approach, incorporating found paper and bits of text. One senses that Marie-Louise Gay’s internal conversation with an in-progress illustration is loose and chatty. She is open to wherever the story wants to go, and the result, as expressed so beautifully in Any Questions?, is pure joy.

Any Questions coverMarie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than 60 children’s books. She has won many prestigious honours, including two Governor General’s awards and the Marilynn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, both of which she will surely win one day. Educated at the Institut des arts graphiques in Montreal where she studied graphic design, Gay moved on to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School where she majored in animation, followed by illustration studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Marie-Louise Gay currently lives and works in Montreal when she’s not out and about answering questions.

ANY QUESTIONS? by Marie-Louise Gay. Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the link):

Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth

Caramba and Henry

  • Posted on November 18, 2014
Plumdog Blog puddles

Plumdog

I found Plumdog Blog about a year after its inception. I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this incredibly endearing, beautifully illustrated online diary of a dog and her owner, but once I did, I was hooked. Written by British Plumdog coverillustrator Emma Chichester Clark, or should I say, her dog Plum (with help from Emma), Plumdog Blog is a cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed glimpse into the life of a whippet/jack russell/poodle cross, and by extension, her human mum. As a children’s literature blogger, I am online for big chunks of the day – to the point of overstimulation. Plumdog, whenever it is posted (usually every two or three days), quiets the noise, instantly drawing me into a simpler, softer world – Plum’s world, but also a very English world, where grass stays green all year long, it rains an awful lot, and life, while sometimes harried, is always sweet. Plumdog collects the best of the posts in book form, and it is most definitely – one of the best books of the year.

Plumdog walking

Plumdog presents us with a world seen from an unusual perspective – the daily life of an illustrator from a dog’s point of view, and a dog’s life from the dog’s point of view. Beyond the obvious (and delightful) humour of the situation, what becomes clear, especially when read as a collection, is that Emma and Plum are living their lives at different speeds. Emma’s life, as one would expect of a prolific and popular illustrator, is a whirlwind of public/personal activity and looming deadlines, much of it (but not all) spent in the company of her observant little pup. Unlike humans, dogs are always in the moment – a point that is wondrously captured in Plumdog. We see, and more importantly, feel Plum’s joyful appreciation of the now, which more often than not revolves around water. Any puddle, stream, or lake will do, regardless of the weather. I think I know a dog or two like that.

Plumdog shadows

Still, life does not always go Plum’s way. Routines are interrupted, relationships with other dogs are mostly – but not always, friendly, and some days Plum is left behind, not knowing when or even if Emma will return (inspiring one of the most poignant moments in the book). I’ve often wondered what dogs (and cats) think when we leave them at home. Do they feel abandoned, or do they believe we are waiting just outside the door, and if so, do they think we are idiots? How do dogs experience time? Like Emma (and anthropomorphizers everywhere), I just naturally assume that dogs are capable of complex thought, which makes Plumdog a useful and exceedingly charming guide to the inner workings of a dog’s mind and, in all other ways, a perfect gem of a picture book.

Plumdog coming back 2

Prior to Plumdog Blog, I was a distant admirer of Emma Chichester Clark, but not overly familiar with her work. It was simply a matter of proximity – her books are not as well known in North America as they are in the UK and Europe. Since then, however, I have become a true fan of her art, and am slowly building my collection of books. One might assume that because Plumdog is a series of journal entries the art is mere dressing for Plum’s story – a visual record rather than fully realized illustrations, but this is not the case. The watercolours, especially the full-page spreads, are ravishing. Come for the dog, stay for the art! I am simply in awe of her ability to capture expression and body language with minimal brushstrokes, and the settings – interior and particularly exterior, are breathtaking. There is an immediacy to the illustrations which suggests a very sure (and quick) hand, and indeed, in Plumdog Blog (but not the book) the paper is often visibly warped by the watercolour. These are true in the moment creations, but taken as a whole, Plumdog weaves a tale that is full of warmth, humour, and above all, pure dog joy.

Plumdog Puddles 2

Emma and PlumAccording to her website, Emma Chichester Clark was ‘born in Hyde Park Corner, London, but grew up in the countryside in Ireland in an old white farmhouse surrounded by fields.’ A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London (tutored by none other than Quentin Blake and Michael Foreman, among others), Emma has illustrated many books, including the very popular Blue Kangaroo series, as well as books by Roald Dahl, Kevin Crossley, and Michael Morpurgo. She lives in West London with her husband, stepsons, and a lovely little dog named Plum.

PLUMDOG by Emma Chichester Clark. Published by Jonathan Cape, 2014

And for the continuing adventures of Plum, click on PLUMDOG BLOG. I demand it!

  • Posted on October 28, 2014
What There Is Before-the bed

What There Is Before There Is Anything There

I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven, I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was Liniers coverlurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell boloney being fried in the kitchen downstairs, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70’s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.

Liniers umbrella guy

What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.

Liniers black monster

Liniers I Am What There Is

The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.

Liniers surrounded

Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.

Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.

Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, Liniers detailand magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.

 What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

  • Posted on October 05, 2014
Willy's Stories cover

Anthony Browne & the Illustration Cupboard

I had purchased tickets in March to see Kate Bush in London September 9th, but was unable to commit to the trip until three weeks prior to the concert date. Not sure why. A lot of money, I guess, for a short trip, but in the end, I realized that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It had been 35 years since Kate had last performed, and if I had to wait another 35, we’d both be dead. So, in mid-August, I finally booked my ticket. As it turned out, I would have about a day and half to explore London. I’d visited the city on previous occasions and did not feel compelled to hit all the the touristy stops, nor did I have the time, but I did want to see if there were any illustration galleries I could visit. Edmonton is a lovely place to live, but illustration, even at the University level, is not a visible, or truly appreciated art. There are fantastic illustrators in the city, and in Alberta, but no gallery caters to illustration art. We have neither the population nor the interest. In fact, I had never been to a gallery specifically dedicated to what I consider to be the finest of all the arts – picture book illustration.

Illustration Cupboard

The first thing that popped up on Google was THE ILLUSTRATION CUPBOARD in central London. And, in a delightful twist of fate, the upcoming exhibit would be featuring the art of Anthony Browne – former Children’s Laureate of Great Britain, primate painter extraordinaire, and one of my all time favourite illustrators. What a crazy random happenstance! So, the Illustration Cupboard was added to my list of destinations, along with the Tower of London (to meet the Raven Master), and a bookstore, if I could find one.

In the early afternoon of September 9th, I emerged from the Green Park District Line underground and, after several missteps, detours, and many failed attempts to orient myself using a map, I found the Illustration Cupboard, located in a very picturesque area of London (St James). A very busy, and high-end area as well. The gallery is tucked into a sloping street of shops, close to Fortnum & Mason (and its provocatively displayed sweets). I knew I was in the right place when I saw Anthony Browne’s newest book, Willy’s Stories, in the window. It was tremendously exhilarating to a: have found the place, and b: stand in front of Anthony Browne’s original artwork. The title of the exhibit was 30 Years of Willy the Wimp, his frequent protagonist (and chimpanzee) who is arguably Browne’s ‘shadow’ self. It was very interesting seeing the illustrations up close – they are far more delicate and beautiful than I could have imagined. This is not to suggest that the printed illustrations are anything less than magnificent, but the originals have a virtuosity of detail that, I can see now, is impossible to reproduce. There is genius in every line, whether in a chimp’s face, or the trunk of a tree. It is also oddly cheering to see areas of white-out. Watercolour, even for the great Anthony Browne, is a bitch.

Illustration Cupboard Gorilla

The Illustration Cupboard not only has original art, it also has the most exquisite collection of picture books, most of which have been signed; a crack house, in other words. I spent a long time in front of the Anthony Browne display but in spite of the first edition signed copies, I settled on his most recent book Willy’s Stories, which was also signed. I have most, if not all of his books at home, and as much as I would have liked to purchase ALL of the signed first editions, I just couldn’t. My addiction, thus far, is manageable, but given the right circumstances (robbing a bank), I could imagine spending many thousands of pounds in this gallery, starting with a certain chimp.

Illustration Cupboard selection

In addition to the Browne, I picked up a signed edition of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (Hutchinson, 2013), with illustrations by Alexis Deacon – an illustrator I’d never heard of, but fell in love with on the spot. Also, The Wonderful Egg by Dahlov Ipcar (Flying Eye Books, 2014). It’s a reissue of a book originally published in 1958. What can I say, I have a soft spot for vintage illustration, and the Ipcar The Selfish Giant coverbook has the most wonderful dinosaurs! There were many temptations at The Illustration Cupboard, including a selection of very beautiful limited edition books, in particular Through the Looking Glass, with illustrations by John Vernon Lord, but time was ticking, and I wasn’t at all certain that I could find my way back to the Green Park Underground. Turns out, I was right, ending up on embassy row, but a kindly man in a guard’s uniform came to my rescue, and I was soon on my way back to Hammersmith. My directional challenges were no fault of the Illustration Cupboard – the location being quite straightforward (once I found it). For reasons beyond my comprehension, I enjoy a certain, shall we say, mental distance from maps and logic, and at no point during my stay in London did I have a single clue as to where I was, or what direction I was facing.

It was several days (and many, many hours in airports) before I read through Willy’s Stories, which is a companion of sorts to Willy’s Pictures, published a few years ago. In Willy’s Pictures, Willy introduces the reader to his favourite works of art. In Willy’s Stories, it is great literature that inspires the affable chimp, and it begins with a trip to the library ~

“Every time I walk through these doors something incredible happens. I go on amazing adventures.”

Yes, and that’s just how I feel every time I open a new Anthony Browne book.

Willy's Stories down the rabbit hole

Reading, for Willy, is a full-immersion sport. One day he is Peter Pan, sword fighting with Captain Hook on the deck of a ship. Another day he’s a character in Alice in Wonderland, falling down a book-lined rabbit hole. As these classic children’s stories inspire Willy, so do they inspire Browne to create some of his most beautiful work to date. Typically, an Anthony Browne illustration is awash in bright colour, a counterbalance to the muted monkey-browns of Willy and his primate kin. Occasionally, however, Browne goes full on, fairy-tale dark, as in the painting that accompanies Willy’s description of a scene from the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows. The ghostly spectre of a fantastically gnarled tree sits in the middle of the page, every branch scarred by half-formed creatures. Eyes stare out from the murk while Willy, almost invisible in the autumnal colours of the forest floor, hides in a hollow at the base of the tree, terrified. Who knew Wind in the Willows could be so creepy, or inspire such dark imagery? There is nothing wimpy about that chimp’s imagination! And yet, in spite of the spookiness, Browne’s masterful illustration retains his signature playfulness in the humourously camouflaged details, like the row of books tucked into a hollow of the tree. In fact, books are present in every illustration in Willy’s Pictures (much like the bananas that have so often made appearances in previous books). As always, nothing is quite what it seems.

Willy's Stories tree

As gobsmackingly wonderful as it was to see Kate Bush in concert, the opportunity to see Anthony Browne’s original artwork was, in its own way, equally exhilarating, and inspiring. My deepest gratitude to the Illustration Gallery for having the foresight to run this show while I was in London. So kind of them! And of course, for their continued celebration and promotion of great illustration and illustrators. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay a longer. The current show (Sept 24 to Oct 18) is The Art of Shaun Tan, another one of my absolute faves. Ah well…

Willy's Stories WillyWILLY’S STORIES by Anthony Browne, published by Walker Books, 2014

Other Anthony Browne reviews:

One Gorilla: A Counting Book,

Willy’s Pictures

Little Beauty

For more exciting stories about my adventures in London, read THIS.

  • Posted on September 27, 2014
Henry Homer Hudson detail 1

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum

Everything has a story. So opens the extraordinary new book Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by first time author/illustrator Zack Rock, and yes, as the whimsical title implies, not only does this museum itself have a story, every single object within the walls of this old schoolhouse has its own eccentric life. And if you happen to be the curator of this museum, you’d better know how to tell a story. No problem. Homer Henry Hudson is your man, or should I say, dog.

Homer Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverHomer, an old bulldog, is like one of the curio items in his museum: worn around the edges, perhaps a little out of place, full of quirk, and resonant with history. He may have a cloudy eye, but his vision is clear, and his taste for adventure knows no bounds. You see, everything in the museum has been discovered, collected, and/or presented to Homer over his long life as an explorer, and over time, the items have become totems – the material representation of past adventures. His first discovery, a Conatusaurus Skull (#0001) ‘no bigger than a chicken and as rubbish at flying’, found in the soil of his family’s farm, awakens an ‘unquenchable curiosity’ about the world and sets Homer on a life-long quest to uncover, to put it mildly, the unusual.

Ostensibly, Homer’s job is to keep the museum presentable for the visitors, and to ‘sit quiet as a curio’ while they explore the exhibits. Each item is accompanied by a description and a personal note as to its provenance. There are thousands of objects in the museum, but it is always his hope that the visitors will gravitate toward the few ‘favourite bits and bobs’ that have become emblematic of his travels. Some are stand-alone objects, like the Radial Tide Diviner (#0023), a device used by soothsayers on Calypso Island to ‘predict the future based on tidal pattern.’ Unfortunately for the Calypsoian civilization, the entire island slipped into the Ionian Sea after an earthquake in 487BC. “Shame the device never warned the soothsayers that their island sat on a massive fault line,” writes Homer.

Homer Henry Hudson Radial Tide Diviner

The Manneken Mort

The Manneken Mort

Other objects provide a through-line from one part of Homer’s life to another. A young girl who gives the explorer a  Nóttlandian Stuffed Animal (#1981) in gratitude for plucking her out of the rebels’ grasp makes an appearance later in the book when she presents Homer with the Manneken Mort of King Ingmar (#3415) –  a parting gift from her deceased father King Ingmar for saving his daughter’s life. A Manneken Mort is a figure made of fabric bands, each band representing one story in a Nóttlandian’s life. When a person passes away, friends and family gather, and as as each story is recited, another band is added. Like the discovery of the Conatusaurus Skull, upon seeing the Manneken Mort, Henry’s wanderlust is stirred. Has his last band been woven? More importantly, does his explorer’s hat still fit?

Zack Rock’s sepia-infused illustrations in Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum are little masterpieces of humour, imagination, and of course, gobsmacking beauty. Anyone who has ever picked up a watercolour brush will understand how little control one has over the medium, and given the complexity of Rock’s illustrations, it’s no surprise that he does a significant amount of planning before brush hits paper. “Usually I make a small, loose(ish) thumbnail sketch of the scene, just to get the composition down. Once that’s resolved, I do a larger, more detailed final sketch. That gets blown up on Photoshop and printed out so I can transfer it over to watercolour paper using a lightbox. If I have any hesitation about the colours, I do a quick digital mock-up in Photoshop before the painting begins. After that there’s no turning back; I’m walking the tightrope with only my brush for balance.”

Homer Henry Hudson Temple Montepaz Choir Finch

There is a completeness of vision to Rock’s Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum that is cinematic, like a Terry Gilliam film. It is a very particular and artistically playful world, matched in tone and style by Rock’s equally playful word choices. One could spend days with this book and still find visual and narrative treasures anew, like a portrait of Kafka (with antennae) tucked into the corner of a wall, or Homer’s amusing description of how he collected an ornate stone head: “I charged my plane toward the hidden city like a bull…though I lack provisions, I rammed ahead. Though I flew through a porridge of fog, I rammed a head. And then I rammed a head.” Brilliant.

Homer Henry Hudson bottle

Though a bulldog, Homer Henry Hudson is the embodiment of that most human of qualities – the desire to find meaning in life, even in the of smallest objects and the most seemingly unimportant events.

“Look around. Look closer. That bit of cloud may be the first puff of a newborn volcano. Those tree bark scratches may be an obscure secret code. That discarded rock might once have been, or may someday be, the cornerstone of a great kingdom. Everything has a story.”

Homer Henry Hudson hat fitsThe old bulldog’s declaration at the beginning of the book invites us in to the world of an ‘eccentric explorer extraordinaire’, but by the end of the book, it takes on a deeper resonance. A call to be mindful, to seek out stories, and most importantly, to be the story – to keep adding those bands to our own Manneken Morts, regardless of our age, or breed.

According to his website, Zack Rock is a writer, illustrator, and ‘cardigan enthusiast.’ Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rock spent most of his childhood in California, a state not particularly synonymous with cardigan weather. He received his Master’s in Children’s Book Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art in Cambridge, England – suspected source of his love for light, buttoned sweaters. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, video games, comic books, and on album covers. Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum is his first picture book, but I have it on good authority that others may be in the queue.

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock

Homer Henry Hudson end page

  • Posted on July 29, 2014
The Promise Davies Carlin

The Promise

Be the change that you wish to see in the world ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If I had to name the theme I am most drawn to in children’s literature, it would be the transformational power of nature. It must have started with a youthful reading of The Secret Garden, or perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but whatever the source, a walk in the woods can do wonders, figuratively of course, and also metaphorically, in books. But what if there are no woods? Arguably, children’s books that reflect (and celebrate) the urban experience are growing in frequency and popularity, but few deal directly with the other side of city life – the concrete wastelands that are the byproduct of urban decay and our ever growing estrangement from the natural world.

The Promise cover

Most children’s books tend toward the utopian, especially in terms of setting. In The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin hold up a mirror to our dying, degraded cities, and then, with a simple gesture, present us with a most beautiful and transformational resolution.

It is unclear whether The Promise is set in the present, or in a dystopian future, but the initial pages suggest a parched world where nothing grows. Carlin’s illustrations, stunning in their cool, abstract beauty, depict scenes bereft of colour: bleak, industrial, and entirely cheerless. The patchwork of buildings, distinguished only by the number of blackened windows, seem lifeless. The are streets empty, but for a few dogs and a scattering of people, all of whom reflect the broken connections of a town that has lost its way. There are many types of disconnection in Davies’ evocative tale, but threading through all is the disconnect from nature. In a harsh and ungiving environment, the people have lost the ability to find fellowship with each other. The young girl at the centre of the story does not distinguish herself from the ‘mean, hard and ugly’ people of her community. Indeed, she will even steal a bag from an old woman.

This is where The Promise takes flight. After a struggle, the old woman promises to let the bag go if the girl promises to plant what is within. Dismissing her words, the girl makes the promise, and is surprised to find not food and money in the bag, but acorns.

“I stared at them, so green, so perfect, and so many, and I understood the promise I had made. I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.”

The Promise seeds grow

Like a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century, she sets off on her journey, planting the acorns along roadways, train tracks, apartment buildings, abandoned parks; anywhere, and everywhere. When the trees begin to sprout, the people are curious. Curiosity soon gives way to wonder. Wonder gives way to joy. As life returns to the city, a community is reborn, and the pages of The Promise fill with breathtaking, transcendent colour.

The Promise colourful trees

Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

Her mission continues, to other ‘sad and sorry’ cities, until she has, in turn, become an old woman with a bag of acorns. It is at this point she begins to narrate her story.

What is most profound about The Promise is that Nicola Davies takes a complex issue like urban decay, and shows us in simple, elegant prose the human cost – in a state of nature deficit, we cannot thrive. We may not even be able to live. More importantly, she places the responsibility for change on individual acts of stewardship. An important lesson not just for kids, but for everyone.

The Promise is a deeply moving and gloriously illustrated book that does not shy away from scenes of despair, nor does it suffer from a failure of the imagination, like so many other stories with an environmental message. On the contrary, Davies and Carlin envision a brighter, more communal, and nature-abundant future, in the actionable now.

The Promise birds

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and an award winning author of many nature-centric books for children. Clearly, she is a woman who has taken a walk or two in the woods. A woman, in other words, after my own heart.

The Promise is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, which is rather astounding. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Ms Carlin has recently illustrated The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.

The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrations by Laura Carlin. Candlewick Press, 2014

For additional reading along a similar vein, I would suggest The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which is based on the guerrilla gardening movement on Manhattan’s abandoned High Line.

On a related note, I love this Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, former city planner for New York, on how public spaces make cities work.

  • Posted on June 18, 2014
Mister Bud Wears the Cone fight

Mister Bud Wears the Cone

Some books radiate charm. Often, it’s not any one factor, but a seamless blend of clever writing, exquisite illustration, and a third, more elusive ingredient – a goodness, for lack of a better word, superseding all. This is Carter Goodrich territory. With the release of Mister Bud Wears the Cone, the third book in his dog-centric series, I can state unequivocally (and with a great deal of affection), the man knows how to charm.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone further examines the sometimes fractious relationship between two dogs: Mister Bud, a generously snouted, routine-loving mutt, and Zorro, a tiny, goatee’d pug. In the first book of the series, Say Hello to Zorro, Mister Bud is introduced to Zorro, his new ‘sibling’, and is none too pleased to share his comfortable, predictable life with the eager young pup. In the second book, Zorro Gets an Outfit, it is the pug who is faced with an untenable situation, in this case an embarrassing piece of clothing, and like Mister Bud, his path toward resolution is both funny and sweet. In Mister Bud Wears the Cone, the bone is once again tossed to Mister Bud, who in this outing must deal with that most intrusive of protective pet care devices – the dreaded cone of shame.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone blue

As the story opens, Mister Bud has developed a hot spot on his flank, which he can’t stop bothering. His mother (who like all humans in this series is never fully depicted), comforts Mister Bud with ointment and hugs, which infuriates Zorro. Not only is he grabbing all the attention, his ailment is delaying their shared schedule of ‘biscuit then a walk time.’ It gets worse. Mister Bud must wear the cone. Mister Bud hates the cone. For awhile, he has an ally in Zorro, Mister Bud Wears the Cone cone onwho tries to help Mister Bud remove it, but when all attempts fail, Zorro loses interest. Like all similarly afflicted dogs, Mister Bud is a half-blind, stumbling disaster with the cumbersome cone. Like all siblings, Zorro can’t help teasing Mister Bud, laughing at his clumsiness while helping himself to the biscuits. When Zorro takes his favourite toy, Mister Bud runs after the pug and the cone knocks over a lamp, breaking it. Never let it be said dogs aren’t capable of schadenfreude. While Mister Bud cowers under a chair, consumed with guilt, Zorro eagerly awaits the inevitable parental reprimand. But…as anyone who has ever been around an animal wearing a cone knows, it is impossible to feel anything but sympathy, and in Mister Bud Wears the Cone, generosity of the heart, and of the treat, is a given.

The continuing adventures of Mister Bud and Zorro are meant to be funny and entertaining, and they most certainly are, but as an illustrator and dog lover, what I find particularly interesting is how Goodrich imbues his pooches with pure canine authenticity. They are the very personification of the complex emotional lives of dogs. This is no small feat. Goodrich is a master of comic characterization, and from schnozz to tiny paws, these dogs are hilarious. Their wildly expressive and beautifully exaggerated features might exclude them from the Westminster Dog Show, but Goodrich never loses Mister Bud Wears the Cone annoys Zorrosight of their essential dogness. It’s in their physicality – in the way they hold their bodies, the perkiness of their ears, how they lean in, how they nap – it’s all dog, and because of this, these tells, they radiate emotion. It’s easy to love these guys – to feel for them, to laugh at their predicaments, to sympathize not only with Mister Bud’s frustrations, but also Zorro’s. Anyone who has ever had a sibling, or is the parent of siblings, will recognize the rivalries, but also the companionship that forgives all. Anyone who has ever had a dog will see their own mutt in these comical canines, cone or no cone. And even if none of the above applies, Mister Bud Wears the Cone is just a darn good story, with heart-thumping emotion, loveable characters, and spectacular art.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone mom

My favourite doggy in the world underwent surgery several weeks ago for the removal of five lumps (all benign, thankfully.) When Maggie was released the day after surgery, she had two large shaved patches on both sides of her torso, another two on her neck, and multiple stitches. Doped up and disoriented, she emerged out of the back of the vet’s office wearing a comically large cone and a woeful, accusatory expression. In short, she looked miserable, very much like Mister Bud. The cone didn’t last beyond the car, the patient didn’t bother with her wounds (much), and once the daily schedule of biscuit-then-nap-time resumed, she relaxed. Like Mister Bud and Zorro, it’s all about the routine. And the snacks.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone coverI am a long-time fan of Carter Goodrich, having been an illustration junkie for many years. Particular favourites are his numerous New Yorker covers, and his character designs for Despicable Me, Ratatouille, The Croods, and Finding Nemo, among others. A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Mr Goodrich has illustrated a number of children’s picture books, including A Creature Was Stirring, The Hermit Crab, and the aforementioned Say Hello to Zorro and Zorro Gets an Outfit. Fingers (and paws) crossed, Mister Bud Wears the Cone will not be the last in this brilliant, and beautifully imagined series.

MISTER BUD WEARS THE CONE by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the title):

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012

Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011

– See more at: http://32pages.ca/2012/06/17/zorro-gets-an-outfit/#sthash.XDdNpc7c.dpuf

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012

Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011

– See more at: http://32pages.ca/2012/06/17/zorro-gets-an-outfit/#sthash.XDdNpc7c.dpuf

ZORRO GETS AN OUTFIT by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2012

SAY HELLO TO ZORRO! by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2011

Zorro Gets an OutfitSay Hello to Zorro!

 

 

  • Posted on May 26, 2014
Winston & George chillin

Winston & George

It is early May, and in the brown season of a northern spring, excruciatingly slow in its progression, colour is like an oasis in a desert: startling, and restorative. In the absence of anything resembling a flower in the garden, I look to books for visual nourishment. In the newly published Winston & George, by John Miller and Giuliano Cucco, every page is a feast for the eye, with colours so vibrant and wet, I was surprised that my fingers were not stained with green and orange paint when I closed the book. Even more surprising – the illustrations languished in an attic for almost 50 years before author John Miller and publisher Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books brought them into the light.

Winston & George cover In the early 1960’s, Miller, an American writer living in Rome, created four nature-themed picture books in collaboration with the Italian artist Giuliano Cucco. Though garnering interest from publishers, Cucco’s energetic, full-colour illustrations proved to be too costly to print (for that era), and so the project was shelved. Decades later, a fortuitous attic renovation revealed the long forgotten brown portfolio, and much to Miller’s surprise, Cucco’s illustrations retained their original brilliance. Enchanted Lion Books enthusiastically agreed to print Winston & George, as well as the other three picture books. Let the feast begin…

Winston & George relax

Winston & George have a mutually beneficial relationship. From his perch on Winston’s snout, George spots fish, Winston catches them, and both enjoy a nice dinner. Winston is an easy-going crocodile with a big, friendly smile and an abundance of patience for his pal. George is a prank-playing rascal. Although his usual target is Winston, he is not above ribbing an entire float of crocodiles, none of whom share Winston’s sufferance of the bird’s endless teasing. Not willing (perhaps unable) to let sleeping crocodiles lie, George yells DANGER, and then delights in their frantic splashes as the startled crocodiles plunge into the water. Demanding an explanation, George replies:

“I thought…I thought I saw a danger prowling through the jungle. A dangerous danger, a very scary dangerous danger.”

 

Winston & George Winston dives

The crocodiles are not amused, and in a fit of exasperation, suggest that Winston eat the bird, but the softhearted crocodile cannot imagine fishing alone without his friend, and so, the pranks continue. Winston understands that George is just spirited, not mean-spirited, and like all true besties, ignores the more irksome aspects of his pal’s personality in favour of companionship.

Even with the best of intentions, however, pranks can be carried too far, as happens when George makes Winston dive into a shoal of mud, and his snout gets irretrievably stuck. George is terrified, but his attempts to garner help from the other crocodiles and the hippos falls on deaf ears, until he agrees to one condition: he must stand inside Winston’s jaws and be gobbled up. In one of the more hilarious scenes in the book, the animals make a long chain, and successfully yank Winston out of the mud, flinging him across the water to the shore, where George awaits his fate. Apprised of the scheme, Winston clamps down on the bird, and announces his demise with a loud burp. But their buds, right? To the end. Once the crowd disperses, George pops out of Winston’s mouth, and offers not only his heartfelt gratitude, but a promise to never prank again. Interestingly, it is Winston, not George, who pulls off the biggest prank – making his aquatic community believe that he has dispensed with the pesky bird, when in reality, crocodile, and crocodile bird, continue on as before…with perhaps a deeper understanding of one another.

Winston & George George steps in

The initial impact of Winston & George is clearly visual. It is a stunning book, but while the illustrations are not meticulously detailed, they do demand thoughtful inspection of each quirk-filled page. In the burst of bright, primary colour it’s easy to focus on the overall exuberance of the art rather than the individual scenes, but make no mistake, there is a lot of personality in Cucco’s depiction of swamp life. This is especially evident in the wonderfully expressive faces of the characters, who possess a kind of relaxed goofiness which seem more in line with contemporary tastes than those of the mid-1960’s. Much like the illustrations, John Miller’s words have not mouldered with age, but are as fresh and good-humoured as if written months, not decades ago. In a funny way, maybe Winston & George needed to hang back a bit, and wait for us to catch up to it.

Winston and George Friends forever

Sadly, Giuliano Cucco (1929-2006) did not live to see the publication of Winston & George. However, thanks to the efforts of John Miller and the publisher, Winston & George will be followed by The Whirligig’s Story, The Red Spider Hero, and The Cicada and the Katydid.

John Miller’s youthful adventures in the natural world inspired his later work as a teacher and as a writer for The Audubon Society, The Natural History Museum, and the New York Times. Before I Grew Up, the story of Giuliano Cucco’s years as a young artist, recently written by Miller, will be published in May, 2015.

Winston & George by John Miller, illustrations by Giuliano Cucco, Enchanted Lion Books, 2014

Read more about the evolution of Winston & George  HERE.

  • Posted on April 08, 2014
I Wish I Were a Meerkat detail copy

I Wish I Were a…

I will go on record and state, unequivocally, that meerkats are my favourite animal – of the undomesticated variety. I fell in love with these quirky critters in the last century, in a nature documentary, and as if often the case, my esteem for this observant little mongoose now encompasses a small collection of  meerkat-related I Wish I Were a...coverknick-knackery and various forms of printed matter, including the new picture book,  I Wish I Were a… by Werner Holzwarth and Stefanie Jeschke.

With their flat foreheads and bulging eyes, meerkats border on the homely, but my admiration stems not from their physical beauty, though they are achingly sweet-faced, but from a cluster of qualities that are equal parts socially ingenious and endearing. It is their personality, in other words, that makes them truly loveable. With all this going for them, who would have thought a meerkat could be insecure?

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